Hard Boiled (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

Hard boiled crime fiction was the preferred narrational source for film noir.
Born in the lurid pulp magazines of the 1910s, hard boiled crime fiction became one of the most popular form of entertainment (both in fiction and films) from the 1920s to the 1950s.

The most popular of the pulp fiction magazines that offered hard boiled mysteries was Black Mask, which actually started out offering a more classic kind of English-style mysteries, but by the 1920s, it almost only published hard boiled detective stories.
Although the first to write this kind of stories w

Out of the Past

as Carroll John Daly in 1923, there’s no doubt that the most popular author was Dashiell Hammett. A former Pinkerton detective, he deliberately sought to write against the polite convention of English-style detective stories and he was so successful at it that the magazine actively encouraged more authors to write in the same vain. Both a popular and critical success, Hammett was praised for the realism of his sparse, stripped-down style and for the way he didn’t ‘hold back’ from sex, violence and the seedy side of life.
Hammett’s stories were among the first to be turned into films (in fact, his The Maltese Falcon, the 1941 version, is considered by many critics to be the first film noir), and together with Raymond Chandler he would not only write novels, but also film adaptations of many film noirs of the 1940s.

Hard boiled fiction represent a significant break away from the classic English-style mystery story. At the centre of these classic stories there was a ‘thinking-machine’ detective who enters a particular context in order to solve a crime. The detective doesn’t belong to the world which had been disrupted by the crime, but his abilities allow him to decode the events (and the world itself), solve the mystery and make that world stable again.

Hard boiled writers had a style made to order for the film noir #FilmNoir #AtoZChallenge Click To Tweet


Hard boiled stories work in a completely different context. The detective is normally part of the world he investigates and is affected by it. The crime often involves the underworld, which is an instable environment on its own. The hard boiled detective is nonetheless able to navigate that world even if he doesn’t belong to it. He is often a mediator between the underworld and the law, but this never brings stability, not event to the story, because of the uncertainties about the hero’s identity: is he as ruthless as he looks like?  Is he really ready to do anything or does he have some kind of moral code? And if he does, how does his moral code relate to the accepted social rules?
The hard boiled detective is a lot harder to place than the classic mystery detective.

But this kind of ambiguity was exactly what the 1940s tough thrillers were about, and when Hollywood turned to tough moral themes, the hard boiled school was ready to offer conventions of heroes, minor characters, plots, dialogue and themes. Like the German expatriates, the hard boiled writers had a style made to order for the film noir.



Out of the Past (1947) by Jacques Tourneur
Private eye Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is hired by notorious gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to find his mistress, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), who shot him and ran off with $40,000. Jeff traces Kathie to Mexico, but when he meets her he falls in love and willingly becomes involved in an increasingly complicated web of double-crosses, blackmail, and murder. (Rotten Tomatoes synopsis)

Laura (1944) by Otto Preminger
Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) has been murdered. Tough New York detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) investigates the killing, methodically questioning the chief suspects: Waspish columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), wastrel socialite Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), and Carpenter’s wealthy “patroness” Ann Treadwell. The deeper he gets into the case, the more fascinated he becomes by the enigmatic Laura, literally falling in love with the girl’s painted portrait. As he sits in Laura’s apartment, ruminating over the case and his own obsessions, the door opens, the lights switch on, and in walks Laura Hunt, very much alive!(Fandango synopsis)



Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC
Schrader, Paul. Note on Film Noir. Filmex (First Los Angeles International Film Exposition), Los Angeles, 1971

Cindy Tsutsumi – 1940s American Film Noir
Quora – What is the etymology of the term “hard-boiled” fiction/detective/etc.?

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1940s Film Noir - HARD BOILED (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - The hard boiled writers had a style made to order for the film noir.

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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

42 Comments on "Hard Boiled (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)"

  1. So different from the Golden Age style detective fiction like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers (I will admit to having a big soft spot for what we now call the Cozy Mystery). The Hard Boiled Crime Fiction is a lot more hard-hitting and you’re not always so sure of who are the good and bad guys.
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles – Dragon Diaries
    Sophie Duncan recently posted…Dragon Diaries – H is for Harshada – A to Z Challenge 2017 #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

    • I’ll admit I like all kinds of mysteries, each for its own characteristics. But hard boiled works particularly well in combination with noir, in my opinion. they lend something to each other and the end result is often striking.

  2. I haven’t seen Laura but you have tickled my imagination enough to make me want to go out and find it and watch.
    Hindsight #Lexicon of Leaving

  3. I had no idea about this genre of stories. Though I have always enjoyed crime fiction from Agatha Christie to Michael Connelly. Interesting to read this.

  4. Insightful post as always, Sarah. Laura seems like an interesting movie. Would love to watch it!

  5. I love the term “hard boiled” it just describes the genre so well 🙂
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Shapeshifters and Werewolves

  6. By coincidence I watched Laura again last night! Such a good film. Your posts remind me of so many good noir films I love – need to watch them all again – once I’ve got the time after April that is!

  7. My dad enjoyed reading Dashiell Hammett, and The Maltese Falcon won me over. Have always been a fan of the genre. All those tough guys with soft hearts!
    Gail M Baugniet recently posted…H is for HAWAIIAN FRUIT an Excellent FOOD FOR THOUGHT #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

    • LOL! That’s true. though I fell for the films before I fell for the novels. When I was a little kid, I would watch these movies with my granny, who was a hard core fan.
      I suppose they made such impression upon me that here I still am enjoying them 🙂

  8. Hardboiled indeed. Old is Gold I feel. I love watching them.Well written. 🙂
    Preethi Venugopala recently posted…Hook the Reader using the Narrative HookMy Profile

  9. Ah yes, the hard boiled detective is definitely something I think of when it comes to these old films!
    Megan Morgan recently posted…H Is For HomophonesMy Profile

  10. Finally–one I’m familiar with! Excellent.
    Jacqui recently posted…Today’s #AtoZChallenge: Humor GenreMy Profile

  11. Now you have totally intrigued me, I want to try soon.
    Launching SIM Organics This April
    *Menaka Bharathi *

  12. It sounds a bit like the police procedural book genre. I haven’t watched or read too many detective stories, though I know I need to branch out more.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…L’Hôtel de la Duchesse-Anne and Hashomer HatzairMy Profile

    • Well, I wouldn’t say that hard boiled is similar to the procedurals.
      Procedurals focus on the procedure (guess what 😉 ), on how an investigation is handle by a professional team.
      In many respects, hard boiled is the exact contraty. It revolves around a lone wolf, who disrespects any rule and who acts rather than reason.

      Hey, if you end up reading some, let me know what you think 😉

  13. The writers of film noir could really let loose where they could not do it in other genres because we are dealing usually with the more seedy aspects. I wonder if you will get into the production code-Will Hays and his stamp of approval. This is why the bad girls usually meet their maker in one form or another. Laura is a unique example that the independent gal is actually a victim but can hold her own. The writers also got away with hints of sexual morals that were not well liked at the time…Lydecker in his bathtub talking to the detective. When I spoke about Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler actually is in this film as a cameo. The writers had fun too!
    Birgit recently posted…A to Z Challenge-Letter HMy Profile

    • I’ve watched a documentary from the 1980s where many noir directors recounted of their relationship with censorship and of many anecdotes about it. It was quite fun 😉

  14. Out of the Past is such an excellent example of the hard-boiled film! I’m very glad you cited it. And I think the grittier, edgier sort of story that is typical for hard boiled novels really does translate well to the screen. So I can see why this would be such a natural match (book to film, I mean).

    • True, eh?
      Sure, we’re so accustomed to see hard boiled translated into noir it’s a bit difficult to judge – but honestly, how else would you make a hard boiled novel into a film 😉

  15. I’ve never heard of hardboiled. Very informative, thank you.

    • It’s so weird. I’m so familiar with this genre that I find it hard to believe other readers don’t know it.
      Besides, who know how many genres I’ve never heard of 😉

  16. So many movies to catch up on! Though I’ve read the books I haven’t seen enough hard boiled detective movies. I’m more familiar with the spoofs and pastiches than the real thing!
    CD Gallant-King recently posted…H – Sir Frederick Haultain and the Province of BuffaloMy Profile

  17. “Hard boiled” is such a great, descriptive term for a genre. It stirs up certain images as soon as you hear it!
    Nick Wilford recently posted…A-Z Challenge 2017 – H is for HedgesonMy Profile

  18. I finally had to break down and look up pulp magazines and pulp fiction which I have resisted doing ever since the movie Pulp Fiction came out. So you forced me to learn something tonight!

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  19. I’ve often wondered why we are so attracted to dark stories. Is it because we all secretly wish we could be bad?

  20. I hadn’t heard of hard boiled crime fiction. Always fun to read how storytelling conventions change through the times.
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…A to Z Herbarium: IvyMy Profile

  21. I wonder how it came to be called hard boiled. Certainly the detectives were hard eggs to crack. They always had a dark side to them.
    Sharon Himsl recently posted…L for Lais: Female Scientists Before Our TimeMy Profile

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